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Lords Constitution Committee to consider accountability of civil service and special advisors

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has today launched a new inquiry into the accountability of civil servants.  The Committee will consider the constitutional position of the home civil service following the introduction of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which placed it on a statutory basis for the first time.

The Committee will examine the convention of individual ministerial responsibility under which civil servants are responsible to ministers, who in turn are responsible to Parliament. They will also consider the position of civil servants in non-ministerial departments such as HM Revenue and Customs and the Office of Fair Trading, where government ministers do not have day-to-day control.

The inquiry will also cover the role of special advisors, who although technically civil servants, are exempt from the usual requirements of impartiality, objectivity and appointment on merit, and who are thought to exercise increasing influence within government.

The Committee invites written submissions to arrive no later than 8 June 2012.  Questions the Committee will consider include:

  • Does the convention of individual ministerial responsibility remain the most appropriate and effective way of holding the government to account? If not what should replace it?
  • Do the civil servants' and special advisors' codes of conduct require amendment? Should they be set out in statute?
  • What influence, if any, should ministers be able to exercise over civil service appointments?
  • To what extent does the civil service act as a constitutional check on the actions of ministers?
  • Are there any circumstances in which civil servants should be directly accountable to Parliament? Could that risk the politicisation of the civil service?
  • Should the Osmotherly Rules, covering civil servants and their relationships with parliamentary select committees, be redrafted?
  • What is the influence exercised by special advisors both in theory and in practice?
  • What are the current accountability mechanisms for special advisors? Is there a case for increasing their accountability to Parliament?
  • Are the accountability mechanisms for non-ministerial departments effective? Where should the balance lie between accountability and independence?

Commenting, Baroness Jay, Chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, said:

“The role of the home civil service is a vital one in the governance of the country. Senior civil servants manage huge departmental budgets and play a key role in policy making. We have a professional, non-political service but that does not lessen the importance of ensuring they are accountable for their work.

“Since 2010 the civil service has been on a statutory basis. But the methods of accountability to Parliament and the public have not necessarily kept pace with changes to how the service and the country are run. We want to find out whether those methods of accountability are still appropriate.

“The role of special advisors has also grown to be a very influential one, and we will also consider whether they are suitably accountable. We would invite any interested parties to submit written evidence to us by 8 June and from May we will begin taking oral evidence from a wide range of witnesses.”

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